Abstinence-only sex education has been a favorite target of the cultural elite, who argued it was naive at best and dangerous at worst. Now, a new study published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine suggests that encouraging young teens to just say no to sex may be the most effective method at delaying early sexual activity. The study, the first of its kind to employ rigorous research methods in a controlled setting, showed that programs that encouraged 12- to 14-year-old students to refrain from sexual activity "until they are ready" were more effective than other approaches.
The study followed 662 African-American students in urban schools, a group that, on average — previous research shows — become sexually active at a young age. The students were randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group was given abstinence-only sex education. Another was given sex education that stressed condom use. A third group was given contraceptive information but was also encouraged to delay sexual activity. And a control group was given only general health information.
Two-thirds of the students who received an abstinence-only message had not become sexually active two years later. These students were provided with information on HIV and were given medically accurate information on sex. Students were encouraged to remain abstinent and were given advice on how to resist pressure to have sex.
Those students who were given a safe-sex curriculum that stressed contraception and avoiding sexually transmitted disease, without an abstinence message, were significantly more likely than the abstinence-only students to be sexually active two years later. More than half of those in the safe-sex group, 52 percent, became sexually active in that time period — slightly more than the 47 percent in the control group, who received neither a safe sex nor an abstinence message but only general health information. Some 42 percent of the students in the comprehensive program — who received instruction on contraception and encouragement to delay sex — became sexually active within two years.
The study couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time for the Obama administration, which has cut more than $170 million in federally funded abstinence education programs from the federal budget. In place of abstinence-only programs, the Obama administration has been advocating instead for pregnancy prevention programs that stress contraception and has asked for increased funding for such programs, $183 million in the budget released earlier this week.
The study will give lawmakers who favor abstinence programs more ammunition to argue that it’s worth trying to discourage teens from having sex. But this study isn’t the only one to suggest that teens can be persuaded to delay sexual activity if adults are willing to tell them why it’s important not to become sexually active at a young age. In one study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 90 percent of teens said that they believed it was important to encourage abstinence, and 60 percent of sexually active teens said that they wished they had not had sex.
What teens seem to be saying is that they want to hear more from adults about the dangers of becoming sexually active in their teen years. The obvious dangers — sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy — are only part of the problem. Becoming sexually active at a young an age is fraught with emotional as well as physical risks, and we owe it to teens to tell them so.
Parents are in the best position to make this case — and according to other studies by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens say that parents have more influence over their sexual behavior than peers do. And schools should reinforce this message, not undermine it. If we send the message that early sexual activity is no big deal so long as teens are careful to not get pregnant or get an STD, we shouldn’t be surprised that more kids will decide to have sex.